This week, Billboard is celebrating the music of 20 years ago with a week of content about the most interesting artists, albums, songs and stories from 1998. Here, writer Richard S. He looks back at three pivotal nu-metal albums, all of which dropped on the same day in August of ’98, and how through their varied approaches, they combine to demonstrate both the best and the worst of what the genre was capable of.
Was there a more uniquely late ‘90s phenomenon than nu-metal? In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, alternative and funk metal bands — Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers — fused genres in a way that felt thrilling, but organic.
But using the same template, nu-metal bands borrowed shamelessly from hip-hop and electronic music, with little regard for good taste, respectability, or rock’s traditional values. Nu-metal was dark and nihilistic, but grew surprisingly catchy. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the likes of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park brushed shoulders with Britney Spears and *NSYNC on the Billboard charts, TRL, and even the Grammys and VMAs stages.
We may look back on nu-metal as a cultural punchline, the soundtrack to our not-so-fond memories of frat parties and Napster — but it started as a genuine musical movement. Tuesday August 18, 1998 saw the release of three definitive nu-metal albums: Korn’s Follow the Leader, Kid Rock’s Devil Without a Cause, and Orgy’s Candyass. They didn’t sound that much alike — if nu-metal was high school, Korn were the weirdo stoners, Kid Rock the class clown, Orgy the goth theater kids. Few would have bought all three — at least, not on the day they were released. News and hype traveled more slowly back then, and the broader cultural impact of the three LPs wouldn’t be felt until early 1999.
Hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Have we forgotten what made nu-metal appealing in the first place — the music? Do these albums still hold up today? And how did August 18, 1998, perhaps the biggest day in nu-metal history, influence the next 20 years of hard rock?
In 1994, Korn sounded like the end of music. The Bakersfield, California five-piece’s self-titled debut was wildly original: Jonathan Davis sang and scatted about self-loathing and abuse, while his band played dissonant, down-tuned funk rhythms. In Korn’s world, nothing made sense — all they could do was channel a lifetime of pain into one record.
But as it turned out, nothing made sense to many of the nation’s teenagers, too. Korn not only survived, they achieved two Platinum albums, largely through touring and word of mouth — with little support from radio or the press. 1998’s Follow the Leader brought them into the mainstream, cleaning up their sound with mixed results. It’s a sometimes thrilling, occasionally uncomfortable compromise between alt-metal and hip-hop sensibilities.
If Korn’s first two albums were funk turned evil, Follow the Leader added hooks — and a more prominent sense of black humor. With its disco beat and atonal slap bass, “Got the Life” was the first Korn song that commanded you not to mosh, but dance. And in “Freak on a Leash,” Jonathan Davis sang of his exploitation at the hands of the music industry, climaxing in an incomprehensible, scatted bridge. They were two of Korn’s strangest songs, and biggest singles to date — “Got the Life” was the first video ever to be retired from TRL, after being voted onto the countdown show for 73 days straight. Outsider art turned pop, the hits were the kind of gonzo genius more respectable musicians wouldn’t dream of — nor the band’s many imitators.
Though some would rather forget about the history of rap-metal collaborations, the interest from both sides was sincere at the time. Korn went from covering Ice Cube on 1996’s “Wicked,” to collaborating with him on “Children of the Korn.” The song united two of music’s biggest boogeymen — not scaring, but daring parents to sympathize with their troubled teens. SlimKid3 of the Pharcyde features on “Cameltosis,” while Fred Durst trades homophobic barbs with Davis on “All in the Family” — the album’s most embarrassing misstep. Durst and Davis play each other’s bullies — a nu-metal power fantasy via a hip-hop battle rap — but unlike earlier controversial Korn songs, “All in the Family” comes off as more offensive than sympathetic.
Follow the Leader, like many Korn albums, starts out strong and descends into aimless sludge. But it was the right album at the right time. Leader appropriately debuted atop the Billboard 200, selling 268,000 copies in its first week, eventually going 5x Platinum. At the 2000 Grammys, “Freak on a Leash” was nominated for best hard rock performance, and even won for best short form music video. More than any other album, Follow the Leader opened the floodgates for countless nu-metal acts to infiltrate the mainstream.
Korn’s newfound fame only created additional woes for the band. As adults and artists, they couldn’t wallow in misery forever. But their music was born of pain — without it, what would they sing about? In a review of their 1998 Family Values tour, Robert Christgau of the Village Voice wrote: “What holds back bands like Korn, Marilyn Manson, and White Zombie isn’t how much they’ve been made to suffer… It’s their inability to put it behind them, and their determination to convince themselves and everyone else that their truths have made them free.” They’d spend the rest of their career untangling those issues.
Kid Rock, on the other hand, had none of his rap-metal peers’ “psychosexual grudges against the world,” as Rolling Stone wrote at the time. Born Robert James Ritchie, Rock had spent years under the radar as a white novelty rapper with a high-top fade, before reinventing himself as the “redneck pimp” of hick-hop. Like it or not, it’s not a stretch to call Devil Without a Cause, Rock’s breakthrough fourth record, the Appetite for Destruction or The Chronic of rap-rock. On the title track, Rock insists, “I’m goin’ Platinum!” He did eleven times better — selling 11 million copies of Devil in the U.S. alone.
If Beck was ‘90s alt-rock’s cool, genre-hopping auteur, Kid Rock was his photo negative — a savant of lowbrow culture. Devil Without a Cause is a startlingly fluid blend of hip-hop, Southern rock, country and metal. Running at a total 71 minutes, every song’s a minute too long — but it’s not for a lack of ideas. “Bawitdaba,” Rock’s breakout single, opens the album with an over-the-top cinematic intro — as if it’s introducing the Terminator — which leads into a metal riff as boneheaded as anything Korn ever recorded. The song’s refrain might sound like gibberish (“Bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy/ Diggy, said the boogie/ Said up jump the boogie”), but it actually quotes two early rap classics: Busy Bee’s “Making Cash Money” and the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
Kid Rock was the first artist to find the common denominator between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Run-D.M.C. — attitude. “I ain’t straight outta Compton, I’m straight out the trailer,” he raps on “Cowboy,” a country-rap song that still sounds like it could be the final stop on the Florida Georgia Line. But Rock wasn’t exactly a redneck — he grew up on a six-acre estate in Romeo, Michigan. And though you could call his white rapper schtick appropriative, his love of hip-hop was sincere. Self-produced, backed by his mixed-gender, mixed-race band Twisted Brown Trucker, Rock and Co. pull off everything from ‘80s block-party rap (“Welcome 2 the Party”) to a Rage Against the Machine ripoff (“Fist of Rage”), stoner rock (“I Am the Bullgod”) to “Only God Knows Why” — a country ballad where Rock sings behind Auto-Tune, months before Cher’s “Believe” made the effect famous.
Even if you enjoyed his music, Kid Rock’s persona was fun to hate: Like Fred Durst, he was a real-life pro-wrestling heel. Devil Without a Cause is still an infectious listen, but we’ve come a long way — the lyrics’ casual misogyny, homophobia, and a far-too-casual drop of the word ‘n—a’ tarnish the album’s otherwise celebratory atmosphere.
“Bawitdaba” became a hit in early 1999, not long after “My Name Is…” — another white rapper’s breakthrough single. Eminem features on the Devil track “Fuck Off,” but he doesn’t sound like a star yet. They were two Michigan natives whose careers would only converge for a moment. Eminem was just getting started, but Rock only had one Devil Without a Cause in him. For a while, Rock was a phenomenon — he performed at the 2000 Grammys, was nominated for best hard rock performance, and even best new artist. But he’d never sound as inspired, nor as provocative again. To no one’s surprise, Kid Rock’s become a more or less by-the-numbers southern rock artist, reliving the music he grew up on.
In 1998, Orgy sounded like the future. The first band signed to Korn’s label Elementree Records, their self-described cyberpunk “death pop” felt like the soundtrack to a generation clicking online for the first time.
To modern ears, Candyass is the most immediately impressive of these three records. Jay Gordon sings like a more tuneful Jonathan Davis, while the album’s instrumentation is more sophisticated than its title suggests. The band’s guitars sound like synths, and vice-versa — and the funky, distorted drum programming on songs like “Social Enemies” isn’t that far removed from, say, Death Grips.
Nu-metal began as a middle finger to the past, but as the end of the millennium approached, bands looked to rewrite rock history. Orgy’s cover of New Order’s “Blue Monday” was their first hit — and for many, the only thing they’re remembered for. While they couldn’t touch the original, Orgy’s take has its own personality: Instead of staying cold, it escalates into theatrics. Along with Limp Bizkit’s bratty “Faith,” it kicked off a seemingly deathless trend of nu-metal covers of pop songs.
Orgy were usually lumped in with nu-metal, but they were an exception to the rule — they had closer ties to synthpop and industrial rock than metal or hip-hop. They sang about the same themes as Korn, but they weren’t tormented by them — they were drama queens. Jay Gordon was rarely seen without androgynous, glam-rock makeup, like Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns. Nu-metal had its own fashion sense, through Korn’s trademark Adidas tracksuits, but Orgy’s music itself felt like a fashion statement. When you scrubbed away the screams and heavy guitars, these were sleek, well-crafted pop songs with more bark than bite. Orgy were fun, but they didn’t get under your skin like Korn or Slipknot — or hell, even New Order. The band released a more refined follow-up, 2000’s Vapor Transmissions, but it soon felt like their moment had passed, and they’ve only intermittently been heard from since 2004.
Nu-metal is now seen as one of music’s most reviled genres, an evolutionary dead end. Many rock fans, critics, and musicians completely rejected nu-metal and post-grunge — paving the way for rock to instead look back to its past, through the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the resurgence of indie rock. On the other hand, nu-metal’s demise pushed mainstream, hard rock and metal bands to be more conservative — away from nu-metal’s wild, carefree appropriation. In 2016, Disturbed had a surprise viral hit with their laughably pompous orchestral cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” marking the exact point when nu-metal became dad-rock.
But in other ways, nu-metal’s spirit lives on. Korn have been canonized as metal icons — nu or otherwise — and 25 years later, their debut’s rightfully being hailed as one of the most original albums of the ’90s. While nu-metal bands sure as hell weren’t politically progressive, their mixing of genres and audiences felt ahead of its time. You can hear nu-metal and rap-rock’s influence in artists as diverse as Twenty One Pilots, Lil Wayne, Post Malone, Bring Me the Horizon, even Grimes. In its original moment, nu-metal may have often seemed wrong, but it was rarely boring. It was the last era when rock was big enough that bands could compete with rappers and popstars — and if you can strip away the nostalgia and the toxic white male aggression, nu-metal makes up some of the weirdest music to ever hit the pop charts.
If you could travel back in time to August 18, 1998, which album would you buy: Follow the Leader, Devil Without a Cause, Candyass? All three were uniquely vital, fascinating, and flawed. There’s no wrong choice. The future of hard rock seemed bright, at least for a moment.